by: Michael Kabel

It's no secret that technology is changing and improving with dizzying speed. Many millions of Americans are just getting comfortable with the DVD format – now there's Blu-Ray and HD DVD to choose from. Even broadcast television itself is changing, with all American television stations broadcasting exclusively in digital as of February 2009.

Many of these new technologies are proving confusing even for electronics enthusiasts. For parents concerned about which represents the best value for their money, the ambiguity can be positively maddening. Some of the more common questions are answered below:

Do I have to buy an HDTV this year?

Not if your television is relatively new or if you subscribe to cable or satellite television services. By act of the United States Congress, all televisions sold after March 1, 2007 must have a digital signal tuner built into their components.

After February 17, 2009, all American stations will exclusively broadcast digital signals. Most satellite and cable service providers will likely provide their customers with converter boxes to downgrade the digital signal to analog capability where necessary.

A digital tuner doesn't mean your set will suddenly become high definition, but it does allow the set to interpret digital signals. You'll still need a High Definition Television (HDTV) to get the full high-def experience.

By the way, the old analog frequencies will be used to expand fire, police, emergency medical and national defense communications systems.

Is digital television the same thing as digital cable?

No. Digital television is free, over-the-air television signals - just like the old-fashioned analog signals broadcast since the 1940s, but of a quality up to five times greater. Digital cable, on the other hand, is sent to your home through the cable wires digitally and does not refer to the quality of the video or audio signal. It simply allows more channels to be sent into each home.

Do I need a special antenna to view digital signals?

No special antennae is needed, provided the antennae you already have receives Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) signals from channel 14 and above. Most digital signals operate inside the UHF range.

Will my VHS, DVD, and video game systems still function with my old television?

Yes, though they may not display digital picture quality. 

What's the difference between HD DVD and Blu-ray?

High Definition DVD (HD DVD) and Blu-ray disc players both use a special small-wavelength blue laser to read information stored on discs. However, the software they use to interpret that information is vastly different.

Currently, both formats are in stiff competition to be the dominant High Definition home video medium. However, in the last year Blu-ray has steadily gained the exclusive support of movie studios and home theatre industry professionals, giving it a decided edge in the "format war."

Look for prices on either player to fall drastically as soon as one format achieves market supremacy over the other.

What about downloading movies and other programming online?

Many consumer electronics experts believe that's the wave of the future in home entertainment. Online home movie provider Netflix will begin offering films online beginning in June 2008, initially for the home computer but with later plans calling for television access as well.

Internet experts have predicted for years that home electronics such as televisions and radio would eventually go online; over time as this comes to pass, it could integrate both home entertainment and home computer use into a single, innovative whole.